note: some information, including the addresses,
VACHSS, Andrew (Henry) 1942 (Andrew H. Vachss)
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Vax"; born October 19,1942, in New York, NY; son of Bernard and Geraldine (Mattus) Vachss; married, wife's name Alice (an attorney and writer).
EDUCATION: Case Western Reserve University, B.A., 1965; New England School of Law, J.D. (magna cum laude), 1975.
ADDRESSES: Office-299 Broadway, Suite 1803, New York, NY 10007-1901.
CAREER: Field interviewer and investigator for Task Force on Eradication of Syphilis for U.S. Public Health. Service in Ohio, 1965-66; Department of Social Services, New York City, began as caseworker, became unit supervisor of multi-problem ghetto casework team, 1966-69; Community Development Foundation, Norwalk, CT, urban coordinator, 1969-70; Calumet Community Congress, Lake County, IN, organizer and coordinator, 1970; Uptown Community Organization, Chicago, IL, director, 1970-71; Libra, Inc., Cambridge, MA, director, 1971; Medfield-Norfolk Prison Project, Medfield, MA, deputy director, 1971-72; Department of Youth Services, Boston, MA, project director and director of Intensive Treatment Unit (ANDROS II) both 1972-73; Crime Control Coordinator's Office, Yonkers, NY, planner and analyst, 1974-75; attorney in private practice in New York City, 1976. Director of Advocacy Associates in New York and New Jersey, 1973-75; director of New York City Juvenile Justice Planning Project, 1975. Adjunct professor at College of New Resources, 1980-81; lecturer at Child Welfare League of America, Columbia University School of Social Work, Eastern Regional Conference on Abuse and Multiple Personality, Dominion Hospital, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, Law Guardian Training ProgramNew York State Ninth Judicial District, Mississippi Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, National Association of Counsel for Children, National Children's Advocacy Center, New Hampshire Department of Corrections, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, St. Luke's Hospital Child Protection Center, U.S. Campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT).
MEMBER: American Society of Criminology, National Association of Counsel for Children, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, PEN American Center.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow of John Hay Whitney Foundation, 1976-77; Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, Falcon Award, Maltese Falcon Society of Japan, both 1988, both for Strega; Deutschen Krimi Preis, 1989, for Flood.
MYSTERY NOVELSFlood, Donald 1. Fine, 1985. (Under name Andrew H. Vachss)
Strega, Knopf, 1987.
Blue Belle, Knopf, 1988.
Hard Candy, Knopf, 1989.
Blossom, Knopf, 1990.
Sacrifice, Knopf, 1991.
Shella, Knopf, 1993.
Down in the Zero, Knopf, 1994.
The Life-Style Violent Juvenile: The Secure Treatment Approach, Lexington Books, 1979 (under name Andrew H. Vachss). Hard Looks (graphic novel series), Dark Horse, 1992. Another Chance to Get It Right (collection of prose-poem essays, allegories, and parables; illustrated), Dark Horse, 1993. Predator: Race War, Dark Horse, 1993.
Also contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Armchair Detective, A Matter of Crime, and Hardboiled. Contributor to periodicals, including ABA Journal, Journal of Psychohistory, New England Law Review, New York Times, Parade, and Wigwag.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Replay, a three-act play; a short story collection for Knopf, a paperback original series featuring the character "Cross."
Since the publication of his first novel, 1985's Flood, Andrew Vachss has emerged as one of the most popular writers of "hard-boiled" detective stories working today. His tales describe—in often uncomfortable detail—the seediest, most amoral quadrants of New York City, where "the streets are worse than mean, they're positively depraved," as Washington Post Book World contributor Michael Dirda puts it. His "heroes" often subscribe to the same questionable ethics as his villains; they are quick to circumvent the law, and trust nobody outside their tiny circle of friends. Tribune Books reviewer Gary Dretzka characterizes Vachss' novels as "less about solving crimes than they are about forcing readers to come to grips with the evil around them. . . Vachss puts that evil under a microscope, revealing aspects of the human character that most of us gladly choose to ignore."
Much of Vachss' popularity stems from his favorite protagonist, the unlicensed private detective known only as Burke who narrates the novels Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, Hard Candy, Blossom, and Sacrifice. An ex-con, Burke makes his living selling fake I.D.s and doing dirty work for wealthy clients. He has equipped his office/apartment with a nigh-impenetrable security system (including a 140-pound mastiff named Pansy), and has outfitted his 1970 Plymouth with a $40,000 array of gadgetry—making it, in Vachss' words, "the ultimate NYC taxicab." Burke surrounds himself with a bizarre cast of supporting characters: his sometimes informant, sometimes secretary Michelle, a transsexual hooker hoping to save enough money for a sex change operation; a deaf master of martial arts, Max the Silent, whom Burke often calls upon for additional muscle; The Mole, a computer and electronics wizard who lives in a tidy apartment beneath a junkyard; and a street- and world-wise beggar called "Prof "—a moniker which could be short for either Professor or Prophet. On occasion, Burke is lured into service as a private investigator-often by a beautiful femme fatale, and usually to investigate a case of child abuse or exploitation.
"Vachss turned the crime genre upside down by portraying his P. I. not as a modern-day cowboy hero or hardboiled Knight of the Round Table but as a paranoid, and increasingly morose, vigilante," lauds Dretzka, while New York Times Book Review critic Newgate Callendar regards Burke's cases as brutal enough to "make Mickey Spillane's exploits read like the minutes of a Harvard alumni meeting, class of 1920." Still, though David Morrell describes Burke in the Washington Post Book World as "a con-man, a survivor, a cynic, a repressed romantic and a very dangerous guy," he admits that his "values are higher than those of many so-called respectable citizens." Dretzka, too, insists that "such virtues as friendship, kindness and loyalty are rewarded [in Vachss' books], and good generally triumphs over evil."
In addition to their mold-breaking protagonist, Vachss' novels have been cheered for the sheer quality of writing within. "There is great power in Vachss' language," notes Detroit News critic James W. Hall, "coming from hypnotic cadences of speech, flashbulb-in-your-face realism and the elliptical string of simple declarative sentences describing this sleazy yet morally tricky universe." Dretzka calls Vachss' plots "as cleverly scripted as any currently in the genre," and Tribune Books' Bill Brashler dubs his prose "strong, gritty, gut-bucket stuff, so unsparing and vivid that it makes you wince. Vachss knows the turf and writes with a sneering bravado."
A number of critics, however, have found fault in Vachss' mysteries: Nick Kimberley of New Statesman dismisses the author's world as "a humorless caricature," and New York Times Book Review contributor Marilyn Stasio describes his characters as "overdrawn, to comic-book scale." Other reviewers, though, have identified Vachss' style as reminiscent of such pulp writers as Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. His books are "a perfect example of an '80s pulp," writes Ron Tatar in Armchair Detective, going on to say, "I mean that in the best possible way." In fact, Charles Champlin maintains, Vachss' larger-than-life heroes and villains make the Burke novels tremendously entertaining. "You may hate yourself in the morning," he writes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "but you are not likely to stop reading, because Vachss can write."
Several reviewers have bridled at Vachss' use of child-related sex crimes as his subject matter. Though the author admits this to be an unpleasant topic, it is one with which the author is all too familiar. As a social worker, a director of a maximum-security juvenile institution, and later a children's rights lawyer, Vachss has had an entire career to observe the consequences of child exploitation and abuse. "All my work has involved children in one form or another," Vachss once told CA. "My current law practice is exclusively devoted to children and youth. . . My past experience makes me a far better advocate for children, and the money from writing helps to finance the representation of kids who can hardly pay the going rate." He later told CA: "Writing isn't my profession, it's merely an organic extension of my real work—a way of preaching my own particular gospel to a wider audience. I never miss an opportunity to go Trojan Horsing-around in a new arena, and I'm always looking for a bigger jury than I'd find in a courtroom."
Because of his eagerness to address such issues, many critics have labeled him "a sensationalist" and his work "too explicit"—labels the author considers unwarranted. He told CA: "My novels are not 'ripped from today's headlines' but precede those headlines with ground-zero reporting that others have described as 'investigative novels.' " For example, his 1988 novel Blue Belle explored the black-market practice of selling human organs; this same practice was reported in the New York Daily News in November, 1993—five years after the publication of Vachss' book. "Many critics responded [to Blue Belle] by saying I had a 'fevered imagination,' " he said. As to critics' common accusation that his books are filled with violence and explicit sex, Vachss replied: "My writing often functions as a 'psychiatric mirror,' revealing more about those who respond to it than about the author."
Nevertheless, Dretzka observes, the subjects discussed in Vachss' novels make them "as unsettling a collection of books as one is likely to find." He warns that "Burke isn't for everyone . . . but he fills a void in a cluttered, too often unchallenging genre." Vachss' stories take readers "not simply into the mean streets, but into a subterranean nightmare world as compelling and morally challenging as any in the best crime fiction today," commends Hall. "They make us squirm, but we need to squirm. We are better for it."
BIOGRAPHICALICRITICAL SOURCES. - PERIODICALS
Armchair Detective, winter, 1987, p. 85; summer, 1987, p. 305.
-Sketch by Brandon Trenz
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